Mariners return to contention and again become relevant, but ready to end playoff drought



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SEATTLE — Lloyd McClendon's words after wrapping up his first season as manager in Seattle laid the foundation that just being in postseason contention until the final day won't be acceptable for the Mariners going forward.

After a surprise season when Seattle still had playoff hopes entering Game No. 162, McClendon has made clear that the second-longest playoff drought in baseball needs to end.

"I told them they are no longer the prey. They're the hunters now and with being hunters there is a responsibility to me, this organization, your teammates and how you go about your business this offseason is very important. That's the message I sent."

Seattle finished with an 87-75 record, missing out on forcing a one-game playoff against Oakland when the A's won in Texas on the final day. It was the best mark for the club since 2007, when the Mariners won 88 games, but was truly the first time Seattle was in playoff contention to the final days since 2003, when 93 wins wasn't even good enough to reach the postseason.

While All-Stars Robinson Cano and Felix Hernandez helped put a winning product on the field, the biggest accomplishment this season was making baseball relevant again. In a town with the reigning Super Bowl champions, fans were splitting their focus between the Mariners and Seahawks in September.

After more than a decade during which the final days of the regular season were spent looking ahead to spring training, the Mariners made fans care about the postseason over the final weeks.

"It was a great experience," Cano said. "From the beginning of the year, we fought to the end. A lot of people doubted that we would be here. It's sad that we have to go home."

Seattle ultimately could not overcome its deficiencies, most of them offensive. Outside of Cano — who hit .314 in his first season with Seattle — and All-Star third baseman Kyle Seager, there was no consistent production in the batting order. Logan Morrison and Michael Saunders struggled with injuries, although Morrison closed with a strong September. Dustin Ackley slumped in June and was only able to raise his average to .245 by the end. Austin Jackson was supposed to provide stability batting leadoff after his trade deadline acquisition, but hit .229 with only six extra-base hits after arriving in Seattle.

Seattle was shut out 19 times. They scored two runs or less 65 times and won only eight of those games. Anytime Seattle scored at least four runs, the Mariners almost always won because of their pitching staff. Seattle went 67-12 when getting at least four runs.

Seattle stayed in the playoff chase because of its pitchers. They led the majors with a 3.17 ERA, setting a new club record. Its bullpen was the best in baseball, anchored by Fernando Rodney's league-leading 48 saves. Hernandez had a remarkable run during the summer of 16 straight starts pitching at least seven innings and giving up two earned runs or less.

The Mariners also showed resilience. There was an eight-game losing streak in April that nearly derailed things from the start. The Mariners also dropped five straight three other times, including an untimely skid on the final road trip where the Mariners allowed 10, 8, 14 and 10 runs in four of the five losses.

There's reason to believe the Mariners pitching staff could be just as strong next season. Hernandez is the favorite for his second AL Cy Young award and won't yet be 29 on Opening Day 2015. Seattle has a team option to bring back Hisashi Iwakuma after he won a career-high 15 games despite a September swoon. The promise is in the continued development of youngsters James Paxton, Roenis Elias and Taijuan Walker.

McClendon regularly referred to Paxton as a "game changer" for the Mariners rotation. Elias earned a job out of spring training after never pitching above Double-A, then won 10 games. Walker might be the most talented of the three and his final start of the season was a glimpse of that potential: eight innings, one run allowed and six strikeouts against Toronto.

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